The Point Of The Rich Man And Lazarus Might Not Be What You Think (Pt 2)

According to Josephus and three of the four Gospel writers, Caiaphas was Israel’s high priest during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.7 Further, as it turns out, he was the son-in-law of Annas, who had also reigned as high priest some years earlier, and who seemed more than a little reluctant to relinquish his power (which is why Luke ended up describing the high priesthood in Jesus day as a kind of co-regency between both Annas and Caiaphas). Josephus goes into much more detail about these characters, saying for example that Annas (also spelled Ananus), “was a most fortunate man; for he had five sons, who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests.8

According to John 18:15–16, Caiaphas lived in a “gated” home, and in his role as high priest he wore purple and fine linen. We also know that he was the son-in-law of Annas, who had five sons of his own. When we take a close look at the additional material that Jesus adds to this well-known morality tale, things seem to match up amazingly well with what we know about the high priestly family that was actually in power in his day.

In verse 29, Abraham refuses the rich man’s request to send Lazarus to the house of his father to warn his five brothers, saying, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” The rich man then says, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Abraham then responds in verse 31 by saying, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

Not only does Jesus’ parable significantly differ from the popular morality tale told by the Rabbis of his day, but by the time you get to the end of the parable, there is just no hope at all for the man dressed in purple, or for any of the members of his family. According to Bauckham, Jesus’ parable “describes the fate of particular individuals after death, proposes a way in which this fate could have become known to the living, but then rejects it.” To return to the analogy at the beginning, imagine seeing a version of A Christmas Carol in which Ebenezer Scrooge stubbornly refused to heed the warnings of all his ghostly visitors. What if we found him instead alone on Christmas morning counting his money? Though it certainly would not warm anyone’s hearts, an ending like that would not fail to catch your attention. Similarly, Bauckham says that the original hearers of Jesus’ story “would expect the rich man’s request to be granted.” Shockingly, however, the request was denied. Why is this? Because according to Jesus, even if someone were to come back from the dead, these particular men are so stubborn that even in a case like this, they would still refuse to repent.

Since the rich man was told that his father and five brothers have the writings of “Moses and the prophets,” we should consider what it was that Moses and the prophets actually said on some of these issues. In the first place, many of the members of the high-priestly families were of the Sadducee party, which, as a rule, did not believe in the afterlife. Yet, according to Moses, when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob died, they were “gathered to their people.”9 The prophet Daniel says that at the end of the age, those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (Dan 12:1–2). And what had Moses and the Prophets said about caring for the poor? According to Deuteronomy 15:7, “If one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns…you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother.” And Isaiah 3:14 says, “The LORD will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses.”

Ezekiel also expounds on this theme in chapter 34 of his prophecy:

The word of the LORD came to me, ‘Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them…Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd—Behold I will require my sheep at their hand…No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. For thus says the Lord GOD:  Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep (ESV).

In John 10, Jesus claims to be Israel’s true shepherd, which is to say, he was claiming to be Yahweh and when many of the Jewish leaders began testing him and saying things such as, “He has a demon,” Jesus responded to them by saying, “You do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:20–27). In other words, his mission was not merely to seek and save the lost, but also included the judgment of Israel’s unrepentant false shepherds.

What is amazing about Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus is that it is not only a story that happened to be pregnant with meaning, particularly to all his first century Jewish hearers, but it also ended up being a kind of prophecy of things to come. We have just discussed John chapter 10 in which Jesus claims to be the good shepherd of Israel, fulfilling the promise of Ezekiel and other prophets. What ends up happening in the next two chapters of John’s Gospel? As it turns out, a man by the name of Lazarus dies, and after a few days is brought back to life by Jesus. In fact, according to John 11:45, many of the Jews who witnessed this miracle began to believe in Jesus.

Unfortunately, this did not sit well with the high priests, because John 12:10 informs us that “they made plans to put Lazarus to death as well.” Here we find not only a lack of repentance and a stubborn refusal to believe in Jesus, but also a dark and active hostility to his messianic mission that had been announced centuries in advance by the Hebrew prophets of old. But all this had been announced in advance by Jesus in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

In their deep hatred and opposition, these false shepherds would eventually have Jesus arrested, tried, and condemned. Then, on the Eve of Passover he would be beaten, scourged, and crucified—not for his own sins, but for yours and mine. What they meant for evil, God meant for our good. The high priests of Israel were arrayed in royal splendor, and their beautiful garments were merely symbolic of the magnificence and perfection of the one true prophet, priest, and king who in the fullness of time would come to shepherd his people. As our final prophet, he speaks to us in his word saying, “My sheep hear my voice.” As our great and final priest he says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And as our true and ultimate king he says, “I know my sheep, and they follow me.”

Even if one should rise from the dead, not everyone will be persuaded. For all the “proudly exultant ones” (Zeph 3:11) who stubbornly fail to confess and acknowledge their sin, and for all those who refuse to turn from their sin to the crucified and risen Lord, he will say, “you are not of my sheep.” But if the Lord is your shepherd, he will lead you beside still waters and make you to lie down in green pastures. He will restore your soul. And even though this world becomes increasingly dark and filled with unspeakable evil, we will not fear, for God is with us. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days our lives.

Part 1


7. Josephus, Antiquities. 18.2.2, 18.4.3, Mt 26:3, Lk 3:1–2, Jn 18:13

8. Ant. 20.9.1

9. Gen 25:8, 17, 35:29, 49:29, 33.

©Shane Rosenthal. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Similarly, there’s Matthew 6:1ff NASB: ‘Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, so that they will be praised by people. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full’…and so on. The phrase “…they have their reward in full (in this life)…” is repeated several times in the first 8 verses of Matt:6 underscoring the significance of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.

  2. Dr Clark, do you consider Brownlow North’s suggestion that Rich Man and Lazarus was a history and not just a parable, to be entirely without merit?

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